Fall for the Book lineup: Shara Lessley’s “Two-Headed Nightingale”

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Next week, the Fall for the Book literary festival takes place at various venues in and around Washington, DC.  (The full schedule is here.) One of the many fine poets featured at the festival is Shara Lessley, whose book Two-Headed Nightingale won the 2012 New Issues Poetry Prize.  She will be reading at Old Firehouse #3, a restaurant/bar in Fairfax, Virginia, on Friday, September 27th from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m., with poets Carmen Calatayud, Joseph Ross, and Donna Lewis Cowan.

In the title of the book, Lessley invokes the nightingale – a bird imbued with symbolic meaning by poets throughout the ages, most famously in Homer’s Odyssey – as a symbol of lament, tragedy that must be overcome, and a lost voice that must be found.  Lessley finds meaning in the journeys of birds, bats, and marginalized creatures that must transcend the darkness of their experiences. In image-rich verse, she presents the natural world and its inhabitants as “two-headed,” darting between entrapment and freedom, silence and crescendo, paralysis and flight.

In the first leg of her journey, the speaker experiences a forced stillness:

In the dark undersurface of sea,
five hundred fathoms beneath,
dark as the giant squid’s indigestible beak

lodged inside the sperm
whale’s second belly, the ocean’s
sleek anatomy reveals itself:

— from “Self-Portrait as (Super/Sub) Pacific”

In the long night called girlhood the heart holds

tight in its bony crate. Like a bird of fire caged
its throat repeats two notes two notes

— from “Metronome”

As the speaker progresses, we see a shift from paralysis into slow movement, in the ability of even the smallest creature, or seed, to grow. This “breaking” and “dispersing” is part of the healing, and a rejection of the old mythologies that would enclose her:

That you bore into coffins–drilling

through century-old oak, rustling, fluttering,
haunting the skulls of kings–then emerge,

racing sightless through night in pursuit
of a lover, your flared wings patrolling

her scent: part defense, part desire.

— from “Portrait Hepialus

…Daybreak. I lay my body down
in powder. Roots torque up through the chest’s
blankness, snarl of knots unloosed. What comes,

on parting you insisted, will come. Ice splits,
in the distance. What breaks will break. Let it.

— from “Wintering”

The dandelion’s

core dispersed to places unimagined. Chorus
of a hundred directions. Each sliver
a possibility somewhere anchoring itself in dirt.

— from “Tooth of the Lion”

Finally, the speaker completes the circle of her evolution, finding that her “two-headedness” gives her the power to write her own story; that “no myth I was holds true:”

Yourself, the rule.

Yourself, the maker of its exception.

— from “The Countervoice”

…And the past rises
again before me. As I

navigate its pitched surface
daughter lover sister other
no myth I was holds true.

— from “Self-Portrait as (Super/Sub) Pacific”

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